Zero-Rated Applications and User Experience in South Africa

In this post, we summarize the findings of our upcoming CHI 2018 paper:

“Understanding the Use and Impact of the Zero-Rated Free Basics Platform in South Africa” – Julianne Romanosky and Dr. Marshini Chetty

What is Zero-Rating or Zero-Rated services?

Zero-rating is the process of providing subsidized digital content or access to the Internet for free. Usually sponsored by service providers or online content producers, one goal of zero-rating mobile data in particular is to improve the affordability of the Internet for resource-constrained populations. However, recently zero-rating has been hotly debated as it is unclear if these services violate net-neutrality principles by creating a tiered Internet, or if they are improving the accessibility of the Internet and creating a more connected world.

What is Free Basics?:

Free Basics was founded in 2013 by Facebook with the goal of connecting rural and low-income populations to the Internet for the first time. While Free Basics appears as a single app, it is actually a platform for hosting a variety of zero-rated applications and the available content changes depending on the country and unpaid partnerships with local service providers, i.e., no two Free Basics offerings are the same. However, all versions provide access to a lite version of Facebook and select other third party apps such as Bing and Wikipedia. Educational materials, news, weather reports dominate the application topics in Free Basics across countries. Other apps cover health care, job listings, search engines, and classifieds.

What did we do?:

To investigate the influence of zero-rated services, we conducted a two part study using interviews with resource-constrained zero-rating users in South Africa. In Study One, we interviewed current low-income Free Basics users to see whether the platform is connecting the unconnected and the impact of the service on users who have little means for getting online otherwise. In Study Two, we recruited users who were non-regular Free Basics users to understand why non-use of the platform occurs with individuals who have more means to get online.

We chose to conduct our study in Cape Town, South Africa because several zero-rated services have been offered there since 2010 and there is no current net-neutrality legislation in place and in addition Free Basics has been offered there on the Cell C network since 2015. We opted to study Free Basics since it is a platform rather than a single service and therefore more likely to shape Internet use. We chose South Africa because it is a middle-income nation with a significant number of individuals who have never been online and where Internet access is relatively expensive.

How did we do it?:

We interviewed 35 Free Basics users in South Africa, a combination of current low-income users and non-regular student users. We chose to interview college students since they are resource-constrained, likely to be connected users, and have a high need for remaining connected for their studies. Including both groups in our study allowed us to form a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of zero-rated services, the factors that affect the adoption of these services, and the possible use of these services in more developed countries than if we studied users or non-users alone or those who were unconnected and low-income only. Both groups were asked to talk about their online habits (i.e. time spent online, what websites or apps they used etc), how much money they typically spent on Internet access, and how, if at all, they worked to keep their mobile Internet costs down.

What did we find?:

Our findings suggest that:

  1. Free Basics does shape users’ Internet use and their choices of which online services to use. Users can get online more frequently and are driven to use ‘free’ services especially when they have fewer resources to get online.
  2. The impact of zero-rated services is highest on the lowest income users but can be a supplemental help to more well resourced users who need to get online.
  3. Users find the concept of zero-rating confusing which complicates the process of managing mobile Internet costs.

We suggest that zero-rated platforms give users agency to influence what is included in these platforms and a voice about the impact of these services on them. We also suggest that alternative models of zero-rating be examined for comparative impact assessment. Lastly, we suggest more interface design work is needed to help users form an improved mental model of zero-rated services


Read the full paper to find out more!

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